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During the last several years one of the most exciting aspects of astronomy has been data from two orbiting space observatories concerning planets which lie outside our solar system. The NASA space telescope Kepler discovers such planets by simultaneously measuring the light from thousands of stars for the faint dimming that occurs when a planet passes between the star and Kepler. The French satellite COROT (“COnvection ROtation and planetary Transits”) finds exoplanets by tracking the slight oscillations in distant stars caused by the gravitational tug of orbiting planets. The subtlety and elegant precision of both methods is astounding.
Sadly such astonishing engineering seems to have been near the edge of our technological abilities. Yesterday Kepler went into safe mode (a sort of automatic shut-down triggered by a crisis). Apparently a reaction wheel (a flywheel used to orient the spacecraft in relation to the stars) failed and Kepler can no longer be aimed properly. The orbital observatory initially had four reaction wheels—one of which was a spare– however the spare wheel failed in July of 2012 and at least three wheels are required to operate the satellite. If NASA cannot somehow reactivate the flywheel, then the mission is over.
Likewise on November 2, COROT suffered from a computer failure which made it impossible to collect data from the satellite and its status remains uncertain. Most likely it is offline forever. So our ability to find huge numbers of exoplanets via space observatory has temporarily been halted.
Kepler was launched in 2009 for a four year mission, however the mission was recently extended until 2016 (since it took longer to collect and make sense of the data then initially planned). At last count Kepler had discovered 132 planets and was monitoring more than 2,700 further candidate planet. As of November 2011, COROT had found 24 new worlds and was screening around 600 additional candidates for confirmation. Additionally two years of Kepler data has been downloaded but not yet interpreted so post-mortem discoveries may lie ahead.
It is frustrating that the age of almost daily discovery of new worlds has come to a temporary end due to equipment failure, however a new generation of planet finding missions is already on the drawing board. To quote The Guardian:
The European Space Agency announced last year that it would launch the Characterising Exoplanets Satellite (Cheops) in 2017 to study bright stars with known planets orbiting them. Nasa’s successor to Kepler will be the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (Tess), which will conduct a survey of planets around more than two million stars over the course of two years.
RIP Kepler and COROT, you discovered so many planets and you will be missed, but your successors will be even greater.
Behold Aplysia californica–an extremely large sea slug which grazes on red algae along the California coast. The mollusk is rarely found at depths deeper than 20 meters. It grows to seventy-five cm (thirty inches) in length and weighs a whopping 7kg (15.4 lbs). Aplysia californica belongs to a family of sea slugs known as the sea hares –so called because the two rhinophores (smelling organs) atop the creatures’ heads are fancifully said to resemble a rabbit’s ears.
Although this Pacific gastropod is interesting in its own right, the slug is of greatest importance to humankind as a research animal (like the regenerating axolotl). Aplysia has only 20,000 neuron cells–as opposed to a human brain which contains between ten and a hundred billion–and the slug’s neurons are extremely large. This allows neuroscientists to easily observe and assess physiological and molecular changes which take place in the cells when the slug learns something. Aplysia research is thus at the cutting edge of neuroscience. Nearly everything we know about the molecular basis of memory and learning started out as research with the humble gastropod.
A news piece on CNN today featured Dr. Eric Kandel of Columbia University who won the 2000 Nobel Prize in Medicine & Physiology for neural research (mainly on these slugs) and made immense headway on what is probably the great cellular biology mystery of our time. It is a pleasure to see a science article on CNN online but it was also somewhat dismaying to see how many comments were basically “why are we wasting money on studying slugs?” In case it is not self-evident why we are trying to discover the fundamental molecular mechanisms of memory and cognition, here is a brief and not-at-all comprehensive list.
Understanding these underlying biological processes would probably help us find therapy for neuro-degenerative disorders (such as Parkinson’s disease, multiple sclerosis, and Alzheimer’s disease). It might also allow us to comprehend a number of psychiatric conditions, such as schizophrenia and depression. At some point in the future, understanding the molecular basis of memories and thoughts might also allow for the engineering of some sort of bioimplant for the nervous system. You could learn Sanscrit by popping a chip in your head or record your nightmares via wire! Beyond such science fiction concepts, knowing about how the brain works is an end into itself—understanding the most complicated known structure in the universe is a necessary step to building structures of greater complexity.
Although perhaps the politically polemicized commenters who object to studying the sea hare actually reject the creature’s sex life–which is indeed somewhat at odds with traditional notions of romance and propriety.
Like all sea hares, Aplysia californica is a hermaphrodite with both male and female reproductive organs. Because of its physiology it can (and does!) use both sets of organs simultaneously during mating. Multiple Aplysia have been known to form chains of more than 20 animals (somewhat like pop beads) where each animal simultaneously acts as a male and female at the same time with its fore and aft partners. Copulation lasts for many hours (or sometimes for days). One can see how the creatures’ amorous predilections might not sit well with puritans and fundamentalists, however for providing a window into molecular neurophysiology we owe this gentle sea slug a big round of thanks.
I am sorry it has come to this. I have to write an article for Star Magazine about Elvis movies—a task which requires me to watch all 31 Elvis movies in a short amount of time. Naturally I’ll write a post about the, um, insights into celebrity, aesthetics, and the national character which the experience has afforded me. However, at the moment, I am neck deep in go-go girls, guitars, and musical routines about water skiing. Today, therefore, I am simply posting a photo of contemporary pop princess Katy Perry wearing a beautiful crown and a Byzantine-themed Dolce & Gabbana gown at the 2013 Met Gala. I am sorry to do this to you (and I am stunned that Miss Perry has somehow sneaked into my blog by putting on a crown a second time). I will shamefacedly admit that she looks very beautiful and Byzantine in her jewels and beadwork. This year’s fashion theme at the Met Gala was “punk” and anyone who regards Byzantine royalty as fitting into that criteria cannot be wholly bad (maugre the gossip evidence).
In Northern and Central Europe, the last day of April is the last day of winter and darkness. The holiday known to the ancient Gaelic people as Beltane is the opposite of Samhain (aka Halloween): in spring, the forces of darkness and the underworld come out for a last wild dance but are driven away by the burgeoning summer. The holiday is called “Walpurgisnacht” in German and Dutch, however the Estonians know it as “Volbriöö, (Walpurgi öö)”, the Swedes call it “Valborgsmässoafton” , The Czechs know it as “Valpuržina noc”, and the Finns, bucking the trend, call the celebration “Vappu”. Except in Finland, the festival is named after Saint Walpurga, an English missionary who proselytized among the Franks and Germans in the eight century (and who was canonized on May 1st).
Walpurgisnacht is one of the ancient touchstones of German art and culture. Tradition has it that demons, spirits, and naked witches from around Northern Europe come together on that night to dance around bonfires on the Brocken, the highest mountain in Northern Germany (although only a hill compared with the mighty Alps in the south). The climax of Goethe’s Faust takes place on Walpurgisnacht as the witches and spirits attend the devil (although it seems like ancient pagan versions of the holiday were centered around fertility goddesses). Likewise in The Magic Mountain, Hans Castorp finally talks at length to the bewitching Madame Chauchat on May Eve as the sanatorium erupts into primeval merry-making.
To celebrate this strange haunted pagan fertility festival I have included three great images from German art.
The National Zoo in Washington D.C. has a duck pond over by the parking lot entrance. There are numerous pretty North American ducks in the pond as well as mute swans from Europe, black swans from Australia, and various fancy ducks from around the globe–but these beautiful waterfowl pale in comparison to lions, pandas, and elephants–so visitors are inclined to rapidly push by the little lake. One day (when I too was rushing by) I noticed a ghostly white presence flitting around the bottom of the pond. At first I thought I was hallucinating and then I thought that a penguin or puffin had escaped the Arctic area. It was an amazingly dexterous aquatic hunter swimming underwater hunting for small fish. I watched for some time before it popped to the surface and revealed itself to be…a male smew!
Smews (Mergellus albellus) are the world’s smallest merganser ducks. They may seem alien because, for modern birds, they are ancient. Fossils of smews have been found in England which date back to 2 million years ago. The smew is last surviving member of the genus Mergellus—which includes fossil seaducks from the middle Miocene (approximately 13 million years ago). Smews breed along the northern edge of the great Boreal forests of Europe and Asia. During winter they fly south to England, Holland, Germany, the Baltic Sea, & the Black Sea. Like other Mersangers, smews are hunters: they dive underwater and deftly swim down fish (showing ballet-like grace during the process). Like many other sorts of piscivorous hunters, smews have heavily serrated beaks (which are further specialized with a wicked hooked tip).
The drake smew has been poetically described as having the combined appearance of cracked ice and a panda. Female smew ducks are plainer—they have gray bodies, chestnut crowns and faces, and a white neck. Although smews are from an ancient lineage and live in a difficult part of the world, they are still not doing badly. Their numbers have declined somewhat, but they are not endangered (which is good news because they are very lovely and captivating).
What a long week! What with mad bombers and North Korea and taxes and sexy exes and goodness knows what else, I am totally ready to phone in today’s blog post. Fortunately I have the ideal solution for a quick but fun post! This year I forgot to celebrate Ferrebeekeeper’s 3rd anniversary. For our first year celebration I published a group of doodles. These are little drawings which I do at the Monday morning staff meeting at the beginning of every work week. This might sound well…sketchy, but I assure you doodling keeps me alert and allows me to remember what was said at each meeting. As you can see from the strange eclectic subjects, I think the whimsy and freedom of the weekend hasn’t quite worn off when I draw these. Sometimes, during my lunch break I color my little doodles in with highlighters or crayons. So here are 21 weeks’ worth of Monday morning staff meeting doodles. These little throw-away doodles open up a world into the subconscious where our true feelings about the universe can be found. Strangely these doodles reveal that I really like melting Middle Eastern cities of arabesques and angels (?). Less surprisingly I love fantasy beasts, gardens, fish, and mammals. I’m not sure why I love paisleys so much—maybe the sixties had a greater influence on me than I know (though I certainly wasn’t around back then).
My favorite is the little purple pleasure garden where a flamingo watches a phoenix fly away from the ruins of an alien robot (below), but I also like the bat and the geometric widget beast relaxing by a tree at sunset, as well as the underwater city of sharks and biomechanical walking buildings. Which ones do you like? Please leave a comment–I promise I’ll respond next week!
The most prominent female deity in ancient Mesopotamia was Inanna (also known as Ištar). Monotheistic religions have a way of leaving out women (or making them ancillary characters like Mary). Polytheistic religions often divide their goddesses into fertility goddesses (like Aphrodite) versus power goddesses like Athena or Artemis. Inanna reflects no such omission or dichotomy: as Queen of Heaven, she was both the goddess of sex and the goddess of war. In fact, saying that she was the most prominent female deity of the Babylonian/Akkadian/Sumerian pantheon might be unfair: arguably she was the most prominent god of any sort in that pantheon.
Worship of Inanna seems to have begun in the city state Uruk around 6000 years ago. Her sacred symbols were the eight pointed star and the lioness. She is especially affiliated with the planet Venus (which, obviously, was known instead as “Inanna” to the Mesopotamians), the third brightest object in the sky which, bafflingly, can rise in the East and the West in both the morning and evening (we realize that his is because Venus is our closest neighbor, but to the Babylonians it was uncanny). Inanna was not just the day star but also storm, flood, wrath, and war. Additionally, she was a goddess of fertility and unbridled sensuality. Inanna had many lovers (and was always looking for more) but her actual husband was the beautiful shepherd god, Dumuzi. There are several unabashedly graphic poems about the physical nature of the pair’s marriage (which you can look up on your own).
In addition to personifying forces of nature, Inanna possessed all of the secrets of civilization. She beguiled ancient Enki, the first god, with her charms and made him drunk on beer. Then she convinced him to give her the Mes, clay tablets which represented fundamental truth and all the blueprints for power and civilization. When Enki sobered up, he sent his attendants after Inanna to fetch back the Mes, but it was too late. Uruk blossomed and outshone Enki’s city, Eridu, in glory.
Probably the most famous story about Inanna concerns her trip to the underworld (ruled by Inanna’s sister, the dark and jealous goddess Ereshkigal). One day Inanna left heaven. She abandoned her seven cities and emptied her temples. She donned the seven sacred objects symbolic of her queenhood and set out for the realm from which no traveler returns. Before leaving, however, Inanna left explicit directions with her faithful vassal, Ninshubur, concerning what to do if she (Inanna) did not return in three days.
Arrayed in splendor, Inanna came before the great bronze gate to the underworld and announced herself as “Inanna, Queen of heaven.” She claimed to be visiting the underworld to attend her sister’s husband’s funeral. The doorkeeper of the dead, Neki was amazed and he sought Ereshkigal’s orders. To enter the underworld, Inanna had to give up her crown and, at each subsequent gate she was forced to part with another of her treasures/garments. One by one she set aside her lapis earrings, the double strand of beads about her neck, her breastplate (called, “Come, man, come”), her golden hip girdle, and the lapis measuring rod. She walked on and on through the dreary lands of spirits, ghosts, and wraiths. Whenever she tried to talk to Neti, he answered, “Quiet Inanna, the ways of the Underworld are perfect. They may not be questioned.”
Finally at the last gate she had only her royal breechcloth. Surrendering this last garment she came to the final depths of the realm of the dead naked and stripped of power. As she stepped before the throne of Ereshkigal she was knocked to her knees by the annuna, the monstrous judges of the underworld. They surrounded her and judged her. Here is a translation of the actual Sumerian text:
They passed judgment against her.
Then Ereshkigal fastened on Inanna the eye of death
She spoke against her the word of wrath
She uttered against her the cry of guilt
She struck her.
Inanna was turned into a corpse
A piece of rotting meat
And was hung from a hook on the wall
After three days Inanna did not return. Ninshubur became worried. She was a goddess in her own right who sometimes served as a herald or a messenger for the other gods, but her true devotion was always to Inanna (some myths even describe her as one of Inanna’s lovers). Acting on Inanna’s instructions, Ninshubur went to various deities to ask for help rescuing Inanna.
Inanna’s father and paternal grandfather were unmoved by her death (having warned her against sojourning in the land of the dead). However ancient Enki, still loved her, despite the fact that she had taken the Mes from him. In order to save Inanna from death he summoned kurgarra and the galatur, demon beings, to whom he gave the water of life. Assuming the guise of houseflies, the two demons flew into the underworld and descended to Ereshkigal’s throne room where Inanna was suspended dead and decomposing on a hook. With magical powers they rescued Inanna’s corpse from suspension and poured the water of life upon it. Inanna returned to life and proceeded back through the underworld, gathering her clothes and treasures as she went.
Unfortunately the galla, the demons of the underworld, discovered her as she was leaving. Unable to prevent her egress, they nevertheless demanded a substitute life to take her place and they followed as the goddess made her way back through the underworld and back out into the world of life. As Ninshubur joyfully greeted Inanna, the galla asked for the attendant’s life (which Inanna angrily refused). The underworld demons then asked for Inanna’s sons, Shara and Lulal, and even for Inanna’s beautician Cara as sacrifices to take Inanna’s place. However the goddess was firm: since all of these people were dressed in mourning for her, she refused to let them be touched. However when the Queen goddess came home to her palace, she found her husband, Dumuzi (who was once a shepherd but now lived as a god-king) dressed in rich robes, drinking and feasting merrily. Infuriated, she pointed him out to the galla and the demons sprang at him. Dumuzi appealed to the sun god Utu for help and was transformed into a snake, but the demons were remorseless and they found him in his new form and dragged him away to the depths of the underworld in place of the resurrected Inanna.
The gods cared little about Dumuzi’s fate, but his sister Geshtinanna remained loyal to him. She begged Ereshkigal to take her in her brother’s stead and the death goddess (impressed by such love for a sibling) relented and allowed her to spend half the year as a stand-in for her brother. Their annual place changing was believed to drive the seasons. As for Inanna, she went back to war and sex. Yet something had changed, reborn, she had knowledge of the underworld and the ultimate mysteries.
On August 21, 1976, the joint military forces of the United States and South Korea launched Operation Paul Bunyan, a mission which involved 813 fighting men on the ground (including a platoon of South Korean martial arts experts wired with Claymore mines), 27 military helicopters, a number of B-52 high altitude bombers with their jet fighter escorts, and the aircraft carrier Midway along with its attack group of missile cruisers, destroyers, and submarines. At the heart of the mission was a team of eight soldiers armed with chainsaws! The rest of the forces were providing support for this small team of men whose mission was…to cut down a single poplar tree.
This requires some explaining.
On July 27, 1953 an armistice agreement effectively ended the Korean War by creating a buffer zone 4 km (2.5 mi) wide which runs 250 kilometers (160 miles) across the entire Korean peninsula. Although huge armies wait on either side, the Demilitarized Zone itself remains a no-man’s land, deadly for humans to tread upon (and, consequently, one of the most pristine temperate forests on Earth). Only a tiny portion of the DMZ is designated as a Joint Security Area (JSA) where people can go. Located near what used to be the village of Panmunjon, the JSA serves as a sort of neutral meeting place, where North Korean forces meet face to face with forces from the United Nations Command. Numerous military and diplomatic negotiations have taken place at the JSA (although the North Koreans abandoned all meetings in 1991 over a perceived slight), however, in the years since the armistice, the area has also been the sight of many kidnappings, assaults, and killings as the hermit kingdom repeatedly tests its boundaries like a dangerous animal behind an electric fence.
In the mid-seventies, American and South Korean forces near the JSA had a problem: a leafy poplar tree blocked the view from one guardhouse to another. North Korean commandos exploited this weakness to attack the isolated guardhouse more than once. On August 18, 1976, a team of American and South Korean soldiers was duly dispatched to trim the tree. Unfortunately a bellicose team of North Korean soldiers intercepted the landscaping team and precipitated a fight. The North Korean officer stated that the poplar had been planted and nourished by Kim Il-Sung and was therefore sacrosanct. In the ensuing melee, two American officers were killed with axes and clubs. The perfidious North Koreans rushed to the Conference of Non-Aligned Nations, and presented the incident as an American attack. With support from Cuba, the members of the conference passed a resolution condemning the provocation and demanding a withdrawal of US and UN forces from the Korean peninsula.
Gerald Ford decided the incident had to be answered in a way which asserted overwhelming force yet precluded further escalation. Hence, Operation Paul Bunyan was put together to chop down the tree under the rubric of massive armed force. Heavily armed infantry, artillery, and air assault forces were moved into supporting positions as was the Midway carrier group. The armed convoy cut down the tree (in 42 minutes) and left the 6 meter (20 foot) stump remaining. They also cleared away two North Korean barricades.
Response to Operation Paul Bunyan was swift an unexpected: Kim Il-sung sent a message to United Nations Command expressing regret at the incident. North Korea’s provocative actions along the border were subsequently muted down (although, obviously, not forever). In 1987, the stump was cut down, but a stone monument to the fallen American officers was erected in its place.
Du Fu’s life does not sound like the model of happy success, but history judged him very differently. Although his work was initially dismissed and garnered little attention even in the era immediately after his death, in remained in circulation and then suddenly began to grow in popularity. Each generation regarded it more highly than the previous and it became worked into the aesthetic and philosophical framework of Chinese society. Today Du Fu’s works of poetry (from across all classical Chinese genres) are among the most famous works of Chinese literature. His poetry has had a unique seminal influence on almost all subsequent poetry and he has been canonized as one of the greatest Chinese writers.
In late sun, the river and hills are beautiful,
The spring breeze bears the fragrance of flowers and grass.
The mud has thawed, and swallows fly around,
On the warm sand, mandarin ducks are sleeping.
(translated by Mark Alexander)